The Writers: Portraits by Laura Wilson
There’s an old Hollywood trope around actors who, having reached a certain level of success or stardom, were apt to loudly announce, ‘Yes, but what I really want to do is direct!’ In my career as a photographer, I’ve felt a certain affinity with such outbursts, and if I could have found a t-shirt proclaiming, ‘But what I really want to do is write!’ I’d probably have turned it into a uniform of sorts.
I spent a good part of my working life working on (unfinished) novels, writing freelance articles. I don’t wish to bemoan my good fortune at making pictures for a living, but if I’d had my druthers...
Along the path I did take, I’ve photographed a few writers, and aspired to photograph more, make of it a project of some sort. Recently I went so far as to draw-up a list of potential subjects to reach out to, finally get the project under way.
But then this month I went to an exhibition, ‘The Writers – Portraits by Laura Wilson,’ at The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, followed by an event at which Ms. Wilson was interviewed by former New York Times Book Review Editor Charles McGrath (also at The Ransom Center), and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that this particular horse has already bolted.
Jim Crace (Detail)
The exhibition was beautifully hung, so that you could see full the scope of the project. I was struck by the fact that the images were all shot on film (none too surprising this, perhaps. Ms. Wilson’s best-known work is probably her record of Richard Avedon’s famous portrait series, published as Avedon at Work in the American West). This obviously carries with it a certain amount of rawness and risk (as with the example of a portrait of Michael Ondaajte that’s slightly slightly back-focused), but it also rewards with a kind of authenticity and air of spontaneity.
Also notable was the fact that most subjects had not only sat for The Writer Portrait, but agreed to be photographed in a series of candid images going about the everyday business of their life. Not all the candid images were successful, even if the intent was understandable. An image of Richard Ford canoeing felt incongruous to me (unlike the main portrait, which is a beauty). But I had to wonder: how does one begin to gather such wide-ranging access?! Well, it turns out, through an extensive network of personal and professional connections, for one.
A few names: Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Thomas McGuane; Cormac McCarthy; Ian McEwan; Tom Stoppard; Louise Erdrich; Rachel Cusk; Zadie Smith.
I realized that many of the writers featured were very specifically writers I admired and would have made considerable sacrifice to photograph. Richard Ford, for example… a writer whose short story collection, Rock Springs, was the first book I purchased when I moved to America as a lad in 1988. Ms. Wilson said that she’d hoped to use the Ford portrait for the book’s cover but was persuaded otherwise by her publisher, who advised against using an ‘old white guy’ type for a multitude of reasons. Anyway, Zadie Smith is of course, luminous as the face of the book and exhibition.
Which in its way, brought me to my realization… Zadie Smith is one of the very last writers with a public persona sufficiently known to carry the cover of a contemporary magazine. I think of other writers I’d have liked to photograph – Martin Amis, Norman Mailer, James Salter, Denis Johnson – and recognize that the time to do so has passed (certainly in the case of the latter three, each of whom is dead. Amis is still alive and famously loathes being photographed, though I did manage to be photographed with him on one occasion, and he was extremely gracious about it).
What I’m getting at is that the age of the writer as public intellectual, as a known cultural figure, is almost gone. Jonathan Franzen may be an exception. Ta-Nehisi Coates might be another, though he’s not primarily known as a writer of fiction. This isn’t to say that there aren’t contemporary writers and emerging writers of fiction that aren’t worthy of such portraits. Of course there are. But for myself, I find myself less connected to these writers, either because I read less fiction now than I used to, or because I’ve not followed entire careers, as I have with the previous generation of writers.
Ms. Wilson says that one reason that she started her project was because so few author book jacket portraits seemed to do their subject justice – a sentiment with which I agree. This a result, of course, of publicity budgets not extending to such portraits – writers now are left to fend for themselves, hire a local photographer, entrust a spouse with an iphone. Grand author portraits have gone the way of the three martini publisher lunch – that is to say, the way of the dodo.
So I’m feeling less inclined to pursue this project now. When I look on my bookshelves, I find that I now own four collections of author portraits – by Marion Ettlinger, Jill Krementz, Bewoulf Sheehan and Laura Wilson. It’s easy to see this as enough.
After the event at Harry Ransom I spoke briefly with Ms. Wilson, and when she signed my book, her personalized note could not have been more charming, nor more apropos. Nicely done.